Many SME owners think networking equals time, money, and effort – too often for little result. But a great deal of business takes place because of human relationships, and opportunities and ideas frequently emerge from conversations with new contacts. The challenge is to choose a network that’s right for your enterprise. Learn how to engage with people effectively, and fully grasp chances that come your way.
Which network is for you?
Choosing which group to join isn’t easy, as you want to be confident a network will yield the best results. Weigh up the events and services offered by different organisations, and where and when they take place, as well as how relevant any gathering may be to your specific business and industry. Do you want to meet people face-to-face, or is an online network a better option? The human touch is usually still the best, but digital advances are making virtual networks a useful channel for some time-poor business owners.
There are some major bodies specialising in small business issues that might be worth considering:
- The National Enterprise Network is a nationwide group of business support organisations that put business owners in regular touch with each other through both informal, and more structured events.
- Business Network International is a worldwide web of networks that operates several meetings across the UK every month. It strives to bring together people from different industries, and the focus is on making referrals of fellow members to encourage business growth.
- The Federation of Small Businesses is one of the biggest SME groups in Britain, with 200,000 members and 188 branches. It lobbies for small firms, offers support, and runs networking events both online and in person across the British Isles. The Forum of Private Business is a similar campaigning body that also hosts networks for its members.
- The British Chambers of Commerce is a major representative group for smaller companies, and a great provider of business networking opportunities. It focuses not just on regional, and domestic events, but also organises international trips to foster relationships with foreign markets. The Institute of Directors is another business body whose local branches hold about 50 events every month to put business owners in touch.
- Even the likes of the British Library could help. Its Business and Intellectual Property Centre holds networking events in its London centre, as well as online via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also offers information on other business networks, such as Women Unlimited, which focuses on female entrepreneurs.
Forewarned is forearmed, as the cliché says, so do your research about the people you’re likely to meet. But also make sure you’re properly prepared to talk about yourself, and your business. The fundamental question is: what do you want to achieve? This should influence who you target, and what you choose to discuss.
- Find out who you may meet – less than a quarter of people attending networks know who’ll be there in advance, according to research from the British Library. Ask the organisers, and identify any potentially useful attendees, then look into their business background. But be sensible about how many individuals you can connect with at one event, and those who genuinely have something in common with your company.
- How would you describe your enterprise? Devise a short, succinct summary of what you do. Remember, too, that other members may have researched you online beforehand, so think about what impression is given of your business via Google and LinkedIn before you join a network.
- Consider what you’re looking to get from this event. It may be a new business partner, further investment, a mentor, a new supplier or customer, even a key member of staff. There’s a reason you’re networking, so try and single out what you hope to achieve.
- Business cards may seem very old-fashioned, but this method of relaying professional information is still popular. About 42 per cent of business owners believe handing out 100 business cards could generate more than £5,000 worth of revenue a year, research suggests. Have a supply of cards to hand, and somewhere to store those you collect. A pen is helpful to note down reminders about people you encounter. Of course, you may use your smartphone for taking notes, and exchanging information. But, even if you’re part of the digital tribe, have a paper back-up to give your details to those who aren’t so technologically adept.
Pitching at the right level
Don’t go into a conversation with an aggressive elevator pitch about your business. Be confident, but indulge in a little general chit chat – even if only about the quality of the catering. The intention is to strike up a rapport with others, which may then lead to a longer-term relationship.
Once you’ve established these foundations, don’t be afraid to tell people what you hope to get out of the event – but don’t overwhelm them with detail either. If you get along, chances are there’ll be plenty of time to explain any important information later. You want to provoke their interest, not bore them senseless. And make sure you’re listening as much as talking. There could be opportunities for you in what people have to offer, so pay attention to what others say.
Know when to move on. The average networking event lasts between an hour and 90 minutes, so don’t stay in one spot with the same person. About ten or 15 minutes is plenty for an initial introduction. Also, remember everyone’s there to meet other business contacts, so there’s no shame in saying you should say hello to more people. Introduce someone to another attendee, which gives you a natural break from the conversation. They may even be grateful if you facilitate a useful relationship.
Turning words into action
It’s no good nursing your warm white wine, collecting business cards, and making small talk if nothing comes of it. The key to consolidating your efforts will be how you follow up potential leads. The most simple way is to drop someone an email within a few days, while you’re fresh in their memory – and vice versa. If you’re really keen to do business with them, suggest a coffee or meeting. If it’s a person who may be helpful in the longer term, keep in touch from time to time, perhaps making contact through a virtual network such as LinkedIn. Digital networking platforms are a good reinforcement of face-to-face methods of meeting.
And don’t forget about staying connected to those you already know. Networks aren’t just about meeting new people, they’re also there to strengthen existing relationships. This means being actively engaged with your network, even when there’s not something specific you need. Keep your contacts warm, and who knows what you may cultivate for your business in the future.
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